IN SOME of the strongest remarks on China's activities in the South China Sea to emerge from Washington, a top American diplomat told lawmakers here that the United States opposes territorial claims in the South China Sea that run foul of international law.
Speaking to the House Committee on Foreign Affairs yesterday, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and Pacific Affairs Daniel Russel said categorically that any Chinese claim in South-east Asia must be based on land features and not on Beijing's nine-dash line, which demarcates about 90per cent of the South China Sea as belonging to China.
While he had spoken more generally about territorial claims and the rule of law in a press conference on Wednesday, Mr Russel yesterday pointedly urged China to "clarify or adjust" its claims.
"China's lack of clarity with regard to its South China Sea claims has created uncertainty in the region and limits the prospect for achieving mutually agreeable resolution or equitable joint development arrangements," he said.
Noting that any Chinese claim not based on land features would be inconsistent with international conventions, he said: "China could highlight its respect for international law by clarifying or adjusting its claim to bring it into accordance with the international law of the sea."
Though Mr Russel did also note that the US urges all competing parties to clarify their claims, it was clear that his remarks were largely targeted at China.
His statements, raised in a hearing that featured numerous hawkish questions from lawmakers, were a measure of the growing unease in Washington over tensions in Asia. Earlier this week, the Chinese navy raised eyebrows when it conducted a test in the Indian Ocean, demonstrating the growing reach of its maritime force.
Republican Representative Matt Salmon pondered openly if it was time for the US to show China some "tough love".
Mr Russel, stressing that political and diplomatic tools remain the most effective when dealing with China, said the US supports ongoing legal and diplomatic efforts to resolve the issue peacefully. But he noted that such efforts take time, describing as "painfully slow" the binding code of conduct that China and Asean are working on to manage disputes in the South China Sea.
As those processes play out, Mr Russel said countries can take two steps to keep tensions from boiling over: put in place mechanisms to prevent incidents or manage them, and agree not to undertake unilateral attempts that change the status quo.
On its part, the US does not take any side on the competing claims but has a strategic interest in a peaceful outcome, he said. It would try to keep the peace by remaining firmly engaged in Asia.
"I want to reaffirm that the US will continue to play a central role in underwriting security and stability in the Asia-Pacific that has guaranteed peace and facilitated prosperity for the past six-plus decades," he said.
He added that US officials have been candid with all the competing claimants in Asia about its concerns. During the Beijing leg of his Asia trip last month, Mr Russel said he had "extensive discussions" with the Chinese about American concerns.
Rattling off a laundry list that included China declaring an Air Defence Identification Zone and updating fishing regulations in disputed areas in the South China Sea, he said: "These actions have raised tensions in the region and concerns about China's objectives in both the South China and the East China seas.